Listening to Britten – The deaf woman’s courtship

Interior with Old Man and Old Woman Spinning after Quiringh van Brekelenkam. Photo (c) Worcester College, University of Oxford

The deaf woman’s courtship – folksong arrangement for two voices and piano (ca 1950s)

Dedication not known
Text Traditional (American)
Language English
Duration 1’30”

Background and Critical Reception

It appears this Appalachian folk song was arranged for two voices and piano by Britten in the 1950s, for Peter Pears and Norma Procter to sing as part of their joint recitals. However Mervyn Cooke suggests in more detail however that the initial subject was in fact Kathleen Ferrier, for in his notes for Gerald Finley’s recording on Hyperion he recounts Britten’s tale of how Ferrier sang ‘in a feeble, cracked voice, the perfect reply to Peter’s magisterial roar’. It was finally published in 2001.

This song can however be given by one ambitious singer who fancies trying their hand at imitating the opposite sex! Either way it has become one of Britten’s more popular pieces for a recital encore.


This is one of those Britten songs that brings the house down as an encore, and I well remember the husband and wife team of Philip Langridge and Ann Murray doing just that at the Wigmore Hall a few years back. The old woman is desperately hard of hearing until the man makes a proposal of marriage, at which point her senses miraculously return.

It is very silly, of course, giving the singer a chance to do all manner of silly voices, and the exaggerated piano part gives the impression of slamming the lid down at the end!

Recordings used

Philip Langridge (tenor), Felicity Lott (soprano), Graham Johnson (piano) (Naxos)
Gerald Finley (baritone), Julius Drake (piano) (Hyperion)

It is surprising this song has not been recorded more often, given its entertainment value. Gerald Finley excels in it, to the extent you can almost imagine him cross dressing for the old woman’s part! Felicity Lott, too, is barely recognisable opposite Philip Langridge, flattening her voice and sounding much more American, with Graham Johnson enjoying the emphatic chords as punctuation.


Philip Langridge and Felicity Lott team up with Graham Johnson here, while something of a rarity.

Next up: Alpine Suite

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